Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—From his office in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the path he is carving out for his country since taking power eight months ago.
While admitting that Egypt still has many obstacles to overcome, the president was confident the country had come a long way since his election, particularly in the areas of investment, infrastructure and counter-terrorism strategy.
After a long period of turmoil for this pivotal Middle Eastern country, the view from the presidential palace appeared to be one of relative domestic stability.
On the regional front, Egypt’s president gave his view about the situation in neighboring Libya and the ongoing regional battle to eliminate counter-terrorism.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How close are you to realizing your election pledges of achieving freedom and justice in Egypt?
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi: The journey towards freedom, justice and dignity will go on until it is achieved. This will be a long journey in a country with a population of over 90 million. Perhaps the real question is: Is the popular will backing all of these demands and working to achieve them? My answer is that I truly appreciate the Egyptian people and I am hoping to achieve everything for the Egyptian people, including what is commensurate with their aspirations and ambitions and to ensure that each citizen obtains their full rights.
Q: So, what has been achieved in the previous period?
I can say that the past four years in Egypt have been a period of revolution, but the Egyptian people are very conscious and attentive and are always looking forward. Therefore, we must acknowledge that this will take time; however at the same time we were able to preserve, protect and promote a state comprised of institutions after these institutions were shaken by the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Managing a country like Egypt requires balances and priorities, until the situation has stabilized. Take, for example, the issue of the Al-Jazeera journalists. No state official wanted the situation to reach the situation that it did, but because we respect the judiciary and its authority, we had no choice but to wait for the judiciary to have its say. After this, I used my powers to end the matter, because my [presidential powers] only begin after trial, not during.
Q: But can you identity the most important achievements that have been made during the first eight months of your administration?
We have achieved a lot during the past eight months. For example, there is the New Suez Canal project. This was supposed to take five years to complete but we pledged to complete it within a year and it is on course to open in August. This project will enhance Egypt’s capabilities as an international trade partner via the Suez Canal. Another example: we have worked to establish a new national network of roads stretching a total of 3,600 kilometers [2,240 miles]. This project is also expected to be completed by August. Third: We put forward an administrative plan for the provinces that will open new territory—in the deserts and on the coasts. This will increase the investment capacity of Egypt’s governorates and increase their territory. We have even been able to mitigate the electricity crisis by adding 360 megawatts to the national grid. We are now conducting studies about cultivating 4 million feddan [an Egyptian unit of land measurement. 1 feddan is roughly equivalent to 1.04 acres], although we will initially start by cultivating 1 million feddan.
At the same time, we are working to improve and develop Egypt’s infrastructure and services. We are also working to develop major sea ports such as Damietta, Suez, Port Said and the Red Sea. All of these steps and initiatives have been made over the last eight months, and we are now on the path to achieving everything that is required for Egyptian development.
The economic summit that is set to take place in Sharm Al-Shiekh next month will be a good opportunity to put forward a number of vital projects that will have a positive impact on the Egyptian economy. We will also unveil a unified investment law and put forward a model to reduce bureaucracy for investment, in addition to dealing with the crises that have been emerging regarding some investments, and acknowledging that this has harmed confidence in Egyptian investment. This is something that we are doing at the national, Arab and international level. Ultimately, we must not forget that Egypt over the last four years has been going through extraordinary circumstances.
Q: It seems that Egypt suffered a difficult economic situation after each of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. What have you done to improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians?
At a time when the Egyptian people have been able to change the political situation in their country and take steps towards democracy via two revolutions, it is natural that there would be an economic and security cost for this. To be frank, if Egypt’s brotherly states did not stand with us and around us in this constant manner, we would not have been able to stand firm. We have all the respect and appreciation for those in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Let me also say, frankly, that the fall of Egypt, God forbid, would mean the fall of the region.
Q: What do you expect from the Sharm Al-Sheikh economic conference?
First, we are making every effort to prepare ourselves to welcome these investors, friends and brothers. As you know, the idea for this conference was, from the beginning, a Saudi one, when late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz announced a conference of donor countries to support Egypt. However, it has reached the point now that this is a conference to push investment to support the Egyptian economy. Today, we are working on adjusting the legislative system to resolve the problems relating to investment in Egypt, lessening the bureaucracy related to this.
Q: What does Egypt expect from its Arab Gulf brothers in terms of this conference?
There are significant challenges in Egypt, and so it is difficult to answer this question. We have every confidence in our Gulf brothers and in the genuineness of their stances towards Egypt and its people. We are looking forward to their effective contribution to this conference which will benefit the interests of both sides.
Q: Reports indicate that Arab investment in Egypt declined following the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, as well as in response to the security situation in Egypt. What can Cairo do to re-attract investment to Egypt?
Our brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have begun to return to invest in Egypt, because the investment climate has improved, while the country is also more stable than it was before. And let me take the opportunity here, via Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, to say that Egypt is waiting for you and it is safe and secure. Let me also say that when the media highlights a problem [in Egypt], that is not to say that this reflects the entire country, rather this is just an individual case.
Q: What is your view of Saudi–Egyptian ties?
We, in Egypt, believe that the strategic relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the cornerstone of security and stability in the Middle East. Both countries’ officials are well aware of this and have agreed on this since the era of King Abdulaziz Al Saud [the first monarch of Saudi Arabia], may he rest in peace. King Abdulaziz realized the strategic importance and necessity of this relationship and supported this orientation, and every successive Saudi king has followed this same path over the years.
Q: How would you describe your own relations with Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz?
Without a doubt, we view our relations with the Saudi monarch as one that is full of respect and appreciation. Egypt has not forgotten his role in supporting the Egyptian army during the Tripartite Aggression [Suez Crisis of 1956], as well as his pan-Arab stances in support of Egypt during the October 1973 War [Yom Kippur War]. We are completely committed to keeping this course of excellent relations with King Salman. I can confirm that we will work not just to preserve these relations, but also to develop and improve them.
Q: You are set to hold your first official visit to Saudi Arabia under King Salman Bin Abdulaziz next week. What will you discuss in Riyadh?
We will have important and constructive talks on all the issues relating to the Arab world and the challenges that it is facing. We will discuss the latest developments in Yemen and how to protect the Bab El-Mandeb strait.
Q: With relations between the Arab world and Iran deteriorating, how do you assess Cairo’s own relations with Tehran?
There are four important axes to bear in mind in terms of Egypt’s relations with the Gulf. First, Egypt’s national security passes via the Gulf States. Secondly, the security of the Gulf is a red-line for us. Thirdly, we must bear in mind the short distance masafa sikka] between Egypt and the Gulf which I spoke about before. As for the fourth axis, this is the establishment of a joint Arab force. Can you imagine if there were joint [military] maneuvers between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait? If there were joint air, land and naval maneuvers between our forces? This is something that would protect our states and their national security, and at the same time not be directed against any party.
Q: Is this masafa sikka between Egypt and the Gulf the same as it was before?
Certainly. Why would it change? When we said that our brothers stood with us against the crises that struck Egypt, we consider this beautiful response to be something constant and not open to doubt. Nothing will change [between Egypt and the Arab Gulf], not today, and not tomorrow.
Q: Let’s turn to the issue of terrorism. Did Egypt need to see the execution of 21 of its citizens in Libya to warn them that its western border is under threat?
You should listen to the answer to this question from others, not from us because I personally warned, more than two years ago, of the threat represented by foreign fighters in Syria, Iraq and Libya. At the time, I expressed my fears that the region could become a breeding ground for terrorism, and I continue to warn against the real threats that we are facing if this situation continues. We must work collectively to restore security. Such readiness will help us expel terrorism from our countries. However, if we let this situation continue then this will help the climate that supports the spread of terrorism across the Arab world and Gulf.
Q: In that case, why did Egypt take the reserved position of refusing more than a symbolic participation in the international coalition against terrorism in Iraq and Syria?
Firstly, let me say that describing Egypt’s position as reserved is not accurate. Egypt has announced, from the very beginning, that it supports the international coalition against terrorism and I have stressed the importance of the fight against terrorism and terrorists being part of a comprehensive strategy, particularly as military and security work is not enough. More than this, we in Egypt have established—before the launch of this international coalition—counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula. We also helped and assisted our brothers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE in this regard. Here, we are not just talking about material support but a comprehensive solidarity.
Q: In your view, how can we eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?
We can only eliminate ISIS through our unity, which I believe is the first step on the path to eliminating terrorism. By unity, I mean comprehensive cooperation and coordination on all levels. I believe that our political and security plan cannot be restricted to military and security action, but must also include united and strong action that incorporates a region-wide policy of deterrence. We have the capabilities to create such a force and send a strong message to tell those who seek to do harm that we will not allow this and that we are standing together. The terrorists can only do harm if we remain scattered and refuse to unite.
Q: Are you calling for the formation of a joint Arab counter-terrorism force?
There must be collective action and so what I am talking about is a joint Arab role that is not limited to the separate roles being played by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Neither myself, nor Egypt, is searching for a “role,” but rather for a strong Arab “case” to confront these risks and challenges.
Q: Can you tell us if any such program is in the works?
We are consulting with our brothers on this issue and that is [to form] a joint Arab force.
Q: Following the June 30 revolution and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, how do you view the group today? Will we ever see the Muslim Brotherhood return to the Egyptian political scene again?
This is a question for the Egyptian people and public opinion. Whatever the Egyptian people accept and approve, I will implement immediately.
Q: What can you tell us about Egypt’s reconciliation with Qatar? Is this a full reconciliation? Is there anything left to settle?
Let me ask you: Have you ever heard any official statement from us insulting either Qatar or Turkey? Certainly, you will not find a single negative statement on our part.
Q: So, nothing remains to be implemented regarding Egyptian-Qatari reconciliation?
We were, and remain, committed to the Riyadh Agreement. This is out of our appreciation to Saudi Arabia and its important role in the Arab world.
Q: So, what do you want from Qatar?
What do we want or what do they want? We don’t want anything [from Qatar]. There is the will of the people [in support of the June 30 revolution] and we want everybody to understand this, and not underestimate or ignore what the Egyptian people want. The question that must be asked is: Who benefits from supporting the collapse of Egypt? Everybody knows that if Egypt falls, God forbid, then the region will enter into a conflict that will last no less than 50 years.
Q: Official Turkish statements against the Egyptian government continue to be issued, and have not abated since the June 30 revolution. However, Cairo has not responded with similar statements. Aren’t you concerned that this might affect the prestige of the Egyptian state?
The prestige of the state is based on its ability and strength. As for verbal insults and offending others, this is not part of the values of strong states. We are talking about ties to the people, whether it is the Turkish or Qatari people. We believe that the survival of relations [between states] is based on the relations between its peoples.
Q: Do you think there are media outlets that are specifically targeting the Egyptian state?
Is the Arab region as a whole targeted or not? It is the Arab region as a whole that is targeted and this is something that Arab citizens are well aware of.
Q: Egypt has recently intensified its relations with Moscow, including hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Cairo recently. Was this a message for the US?
Egypt’s foreign policy following the June 30 revolution has been balanced and diverse and open to all—it is not biased towards one side over another. For us, our relations with the US are strategic, and we in Egypt deal with and welcome everybody in the same manner. Let me also say that relations between states is no longer based on the policy of axes as it was before, but rather we believe that the important thing is to be in harmony with everybody.
Q: But Egypt’s relations with Washington suffered tensions following the June 30 revolution. How would you assess Egypt-US relations now?
We are committed to establishing good and normal relations with every country in the world, and we are also committed to explaining the difficult situation that Egypt is going through. It is not conceivable to say that the US view of Egypt is as it was before, but you could say that there has been an improvement and a new and optimistic vision towards what is happening in Egypt.
Q: Do you think the West does not understand Egypt?
To be frank, the West has many concerns. Perhaps you could say that the West was surprised by the June 30 revolution . . . However Egypt gave its friends and partners the time and opportunity to understand the reality of the situation. There can be no doubt that our European partners were quicker to understand the reality of the situation in Egypt due to geographic factors and our shared Mediterranean culture.
Q: How do you see the future of the Arab region?
The Arab region is at its weakest and under threat. The Arab body is wounded, and unfortunately we do not have an accurate way of monitoring just how badly. I hope that all Arab states will return to how they were before to increase the strength of the Arab body as a whole. I hope that Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Syria and all Arab states can enter a new era of joint Arab work and cooperation.
Q: Returning to Egypt, there are fears that Mubarak regime figures could return to the government through the back-door. Is that possible?
The Egyptian people enjoy an unprecedented level of awareness and will not allow the country to move backwards, and that includes me. You must not forget that the Egyptian people have paid the bill for this [political] change.
Q: What political trend is President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi attributed to?
I am not attributed to anyone. All that I hope is for God Almighty to grant me the strength to achieve the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.